Six Nations and Grand Slam champions England will face increased competition as they look to retain their crown. In November, Ireland defeated the All Blacks, Italy beat South Africa, Wales overcame South Africa, Scotland lost narrowly to Australia and we saw glimpses of Guy Noves’ scintillating French attack against New Zealand and Australia.
So with the RBS 6 Nations kicking off on Saturday, we run the rule over the contenders.
England captain Dylan Hartley raises the Cook Cup after victory over Australia. David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images
The question on the lips of every England fan is, will it get much better? After they discarded every tier one team in 2016 bar the All Blacks — whom they didn’t play — confidence is sky high. Injuries to the likes of Billy and Mako Vunipola haven’t been ideal preparation, but what Eddie Jones has learnt over the course of an historic year is that he has strength in depth. Injury merely provides an opportunity for players to prove themselves, as Joe Launchbury did when Maro Itoje was injured.
Coach: Eddie Jones
After an unblemished first year in charge, Jones’ attention seems to be turning towards building a squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. After his remarkable year of 13 victories, he was quick to point out that England were not top of the world rankings. His goal is to lift the Webb Ellis trophy in Japan and to knock the All Blacks off their perch as the top team in the world. That preparation starts here.
Captain: Dylan Hartley
Jones has backed his captain after his latest indiscretion earned him an six week ban, but with no match practice in that time, a question mark hangs over his fitness. A bigger question perhaps is whether he will return to his disciplined self while working under Jones. Another victorious Six Nations campaign would be just what he needs to get people back to talking about his ability on the field, and it could also open the door for him to captain the Lions.
Pick your team from the hundreds of players about to fight for the championship and be in the mix to win at MacBook Pro.
Key-man: Owen Farrell
While the onus on Farrell’s kicking may not be as much of a burden, he will remain key in edging close games. His partnership with George Ford has improved immeasurably and his ability to put players through has also come on. A different proposition at centre, and England are better for it.
A run of 14 wins without defeat — 13 under Jones — will be tested severely as the other nations look to knock them off their perch. The most pleasing aspect of the year for Jones must be that, apart from the opening 15 minutes against Australia, they never looked like relinquishing their winning run. A resurgent Ireland and France will test them while a visit to Cardiff is not as daunting as it once was.
Forwards: Nathan Catt (Bath Rugby) Jack Clifford (Harlequins) Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers) Charlie Ewels (Bath Rugby) Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers) Jamie George (Saracens) Teimana Harrison (Northampton Saints) Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints) James Haskell (Wasps) Nathan Hughes (Wasps) Maro Itoje (Saracens) George Kruis (Saracens) Joe Launchbury (Wasps) Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints) Joe Marler (Harlequins) Matt Mullan (Wasps) Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins) Tommy Taylor (Wasps) Mike Williams (Leicester Tigers) Tom Wood (Northampton Saints)
Backs: Mike Brown (Harlequins) Danny Care (Harlequins) Elliot Daly (Wasps) Owen Farrell (Saracens) George Ford (Bath Rugby) Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby) Alex Lozowski (Saracens) Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby) Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs) Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs) Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors) Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby) Marland Yarde (Harlequins) Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers).
France’s scrum-half Baptiste Serin against New Zealand. Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images
Despite back-to-back defeats to Australia and New Zealand, France finally looked to be on the brink of something special towards the end of last year. There was a spark in the back-line which didn’t involve massive centres pummelling towards defences. France have gone back to the running rugby which made them a great team to watch and with that emphasis, Noa Nakaitaci and Virimi Vakatawa look set to light up the tournament.
Coach: Guy Novès
It was a less than impressive first year of the Novès reign. But from a staggering start which saw them just edge Italy in Paris, the team looks to have finally grasped the running rugby which the coach wants them to play. He has put faith in the players and they have responded. His brand of rugby will gain him a following but it is yet to be seen whether they can limit their handling errors to complement the style which made Novès’ Toulouse side so dangerous.
Captain: Guilhem Guirado
In the past three seasons, Guirado has played in every French Six Nations game and in each year has come out with just two victories. In short, a lot more is expected. It was never going to be an easy job replacing Thierry Dusatoir as captain but Novès remains convinced Guirado is the right person for the job. His work rate is exceptional but he will be keen to improve his lineout throw, as France coughed up four steals against New Zealand.
Key-man: Baptiste Serin
The Bordeaux Bègles scrum-half is seen by many as the answer to all of France’s problems. Perhaps not all, but he certainly showed against the All Blacks, as a second-half replacement he may be the future at nine for Les Blues. The 22 year-old’s reverse pass for Louis Picamoles’ try was exquisite and off the tee he was composed. With the French back-line ready to excite, Serin could play a crucial role in gaining a title they last won in 2010.
On the results side of things, France come in with no form, but in performances, they have gradually shown they can play the attacking, quick-ball, no ruck game which was part of Novès’ Toulouse. Form goes out the window. They begin where they left off last year, against England, this time at Twickenham where they have not won since 2007.
Forwards: Uini Atonio (La Rochelle) Cyril Baille (Toulouse) Eddy Ben Arous Racing 92) Mohamed Boughanmi (La Rochelle) Camille Chat (Racing 92) Damien Chouly (Clermont Auvergne) Loann Goujon (Union Bordeaux-Bègles) Kevin Gourdon (La Rochelle) Guilhem Guirado (RC Toulon) Arthur Iturria (Clermont Auvergne) Raphaël Lakafia (Stade Francais) Julien Le Devedec (Brive) Yoann Maestri (Toulouse) Clement Maynadier (Union Bordeaux-Bègles) Louis Picamoles (Northampton Saints) Fabien Sanconnie (Brive) Rabah Slimani (Stade Francais) Sebastien Vahaamahina (Clermont Auvergne).
Backs: Djibril Camara (Stade Francais) Yann David (Toulouse) Jean-Marc Doussain (Toulouse) Gael Fickou (Toulouse) Henry Chavancy (Racing 92) Yoann Huget (Toulouse) Rémi Lamerat (Clermont Auvergne) Camille Lopez (Clermont Auvergne) Maxime Machenaud (Racing 92) Noa Nakaitaci (Clermont Auvergne) Geoffrey Palis (Castres Olympique) Baptiste Serin (Union Bordeaux-Bègles) Scott Spedding (Clermont Auvergne) Virimi Vakatawa (FFR).
Ireland’s Garry Ringrose could prove crucial to Joe Schmidt’s chances. Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Seen as the biggest threat to Eddie Jones’ England, Ireland come in on the back of an impressive 2016. They defeated the All Blacks for the first time, had a win over Australia, and will feel they let a series victory over South Africa slip through their fingers last summer. Injuries has seen untried and untested players make the step up to the international set up and anything other than a Six Nations triumph won’t do. Many predict a Championship decider in Dublin against England on St Patrick’s Day. But much work will need to be done before that possible finale.
Coach: Joe Schmidt
He will have cemented his position as the man who rejuvenated Irish rugby following the defeat of the All Blacks. He has completely changed the mindset of the Irish players from nearly men to genuine contenders. But the series loss to South Africa hangs over him. The Springboks, a shadow of their former selves, were there for the taking yet Ireland fell to two defeats. Having left Ian Madigan out, he will hope Johnny Sexton can remain fit.
Captain: Rory Best
The Ulster front row has led by example and is in the form of his life. His lineout is immense and his leadership was there for all to see against the All Blacks and Australia. After an impressive November series, he will be hoping to emulate former captain Brian O’Driscoll in winning a Grand Slam.
Key-man: Garry Ringrose
With Jared Payne’s injury ruling him out of the start of the competition there is a huge opportunity for Ringrose to stamp his claim on a partnership with Leinster teammate Robbie Henshaw. He put in a solid performance against New Zealand and topped off a fine display against Australia with his first international try. When he first came into the team training at the end of 2014, Paul O’Connell stated he was further along then Brian O’Driscoll at that stage. This is his time to shine.
For the first time in 114 years, Ireland come into a new year having beaten the All Blacks. A clean sweep of the Southern Hemisphere teams in 2016 has them as contenders for the Six Nations, with expectation high, despite some injuries. Jonathan Sexton has little form, or competitive rugby coming into the series, but Schmidt believes he will be fit. There have been few internationals previews that Sexton’s fitness hasn’t been called into question, but Ireland’s reliance on him is a big issue.
Forwards: Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Rory Best (Ulster), Jack Conan (Connacht), Ultan Dillane (Connacht), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Billy Holland (Munster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Dan Leavy (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Sean O’Brien (Leinster), Tommy O’Donnell (Munster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Donnacha Ryan (Munster), John Ryan (Munster), Niall Scannell (Munster), CJ Stander (Munster), Devin Toner (Leinster), James Tracy (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster).
Backs: Tommy Bowe (Ulster), Andrew Conway (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster), Craig Gilroy (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Paddy Jackson (Ulster), Rob Kearney (Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Luke Marshall (Ulster), Stuart McCloskey (Ulster), Luke McGrath (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Tiernan O’Halloran (Connacht), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Rory Scannell (Munster), Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Andrew Trimble (Ulster), Simon Zebo (Munster).
Sergio Parisse is back in the Italy fold after missing the June Tests. (Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
It seemed to all that their victory over South Africa was a turning point for the Azzurri. Then they fell to a defeat to Tonga. After that result it is difficult to see Italy making strides in this year’s Six Nations. Wales, Ireland and France all visit the Stadio Olimpico in Rome and 10 years on from their famous victory over Wales, they are likely to target the same fixture on the opening weekend this time around.
Coach: Conor O’Shea
In Conor O’Shea there is hope for Italy. However poor the Springboks were, he still managed to mastermind a game plan to defeat them. The big question is whether he will follow his predecessors – Pierre Berbizier (wins over Scotland and Wales in 2007), Nick Mallett (France in 2011) Jacques Brunel (France and Ireland in 2013) – in claiming the odd scalp or whether he can gain some consistency for this Italian side to bridge the gap with rugby’s elite.
Captain: Sergio Parisse
Parisse is the cornerstone on which O’Shea’s slim hopes could rely. When he plays he drives every player around him to higher standards. There has been no greater servant to the Italian cause than the Stade Francais back row. He is the player to make things happen and won’t shy away from taking responsibility. His drop-goal attempt that could’ve snatched victory against France last year wasn’t the sweetest strike, but it showed in a team where leaders are few, Parisse will always step up and be counted.
Key-man: Carlo Canna
While Parisse is the leader, Italy need someone to kick them into winning positions. That responsibility will likely fall on Canna, who kicked Italy to their first win at home in two years against South Africa. The Zebre goal-kicker needs to become more consistent. If he can, Italy will be within striking distance in games. If not, back-to-back wooden spoons await.
Italy’s form went out the window when they followed up victory over South Africa with an awful performance in a 17-19 defeat to Tonga. Two years without a home win shows the task ahead of O’Shea in his maiden Six Nations campaign. They have had some good performances on the opening weekend of the Six Nations but victory against Wales could be a step too far.
Forwards: Pietro Ceccarelli (Zebre), Dario Chistolini (Zebre), Lorenzo Cittadini (Aviron Bayonnais), Andrea Lovotti (Zebre), Sami Panico (Patar Calvisano), Tommaso D’Apice (Zebre), Ornel Gega (Treviso), Leonardo Ghiraldini (Toulouse), George Fabio Biagi (Zebre), Joshua Furno (Zebre), Marco Fuser (Treviso), Federico Ruzza (Zebre), Andries Van Schalkwyk (Zebre), Marco Barbini (Treviso), Simone Favaro (Glasgow Warriors), Maxime Mata Mbanda (Zebre), Francesco Minto (Treviso), Sergio Parisse (Stade Francais), Abraham Jurgens Steyn (Treviso).
Backs: Giorgio Bronzini (Treviso), Edoardo Gori (Treviso), Marcello Violi (Zebre), Tommaso Allan (Treviso), Carlo Canna (Zebre), Tommaso Benvenuti (Treviso), Tommaso Boni (Zebre), Michele Campagnaro (Exeter Chiefs), Luke McLean (Treviso), Giulio Bisegni (Zebre), Angelo Esposito (Treviso), Giovambattista Venditti (Zebre), Edoardo Padovani (Zebre).
Scotland look a more united team under Vern Cotter. Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images
With Vern Cotter entering his last six months, the question that springs to mind is how much further along the development road would Scotland be had they agreed a compensation fee with Clermont, which would have seen him sign a year earlier. Scotland pre and post Cotter could not be more different. There is a swagger about his side. They don’t just think they can compete, they believe they can win. Their opening game, at home against Ireland, could set them as an outside bet for the Championship.
Coach: Vern Cotter
Cotter’s disappointment in being replaced by Gregor Townsend will fuel his desire to leave on a high and having come so close to beating Australia, there is huge cause for optimism. He has instilled belief into the side, in a similar way to that which his understudy at Clermont Auvergne, Joe Schmidt has instilled in the Irish players. The transformation has brought plaudits for what he has done with Scotland. If he was given more time, he undoubtedly would have brought Scotland to the cusp of Six Nations glory.
Captain: Greig Laidlaw
For many seasons Laidlaw has been Scotland’s most consistent performer. The difference now is that he has a squad of players that are at his level. He may split the posts given the opportunity but this Scottish back line is itching to get going. Finn Russell has excelled for club and country this year, which sees Laidlaw now part of a formidable partnership that could turn the competition on its head.
Key-man: Huw Jones
The Stormers centre had a blistering start to life in the Scotland back line with a brace against Australia and will bolster Cotter’s options in the backs. Even in injury, against Argentina, he managed to set up Sean Maitland for his side’s only try of the game. His development, as well as that of Alex Dunbar, Mark Bennett and Tommy Seymour has rejuvenated a back line which will cause problems for any team.
A slender defeat to Australia showed that the Scots still lack that final piece to the Cotter puzzle to make them world-beaters, but they are getting there. They were clinical in their final clash of the year against Georgia and their defence has also improved. Their Six Nations record against Italy over the last 10 years has been played 10, won five and lost five. A defeat for this current Scotland team against Italy looks unthinkable.
Forwards: Alex Allan (Glasgow Warriors), Simon Berghan (Edinburgh Rugby), Zander Fagerson (Glasgow Warriors), Gordon Reid (Glasgow Warriors), Jon Welsh (Newcastle Falcons), Fraser Brown (Glasgow Warriors), Ross Ford (Edinburgh Rugby), Stuart McInally (Edinburgh Rugby), Jonny Gray (Glasgow Warriors), Richie Gray (Toulouse), Grant Gilchrist (Edinburgh Rugby), Tim Swinson (Glasgow Warriors), Ben Toolis (Edinburgh Rugby), John Barclay (Scarlets), Cornell Du Preez (Edinburgh Rugby), John Hardie (Edinburgh Rugby), Rob Harley (Glasgow Warriors), Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors), Hamish Watson (Edinburgh Rugby), Ryan Wilson (Glasgow Warriors).
Backs: Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester), Ali Price (Glasgow Warriors), Henry Pyrgos (Glasgow Warriors), Finn Russell (Glasgow Warriors), Duncan Weir (Edinburgh Rugby), Mark Bennett (Glasgow Warriors), Alex Dunbar (Glasgow Warriors), Huw Jones (Stormers), Matt Scott (Gloucester), Duncan Taylor (Saracens), Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors), Damien Hoyland (Edinburgh Rugby), Sean Maitland (Saracens), Tommy Seymour (Glasgow Warriors), Tim Visser (Harlequins).
Rob Howley could reprise his role with the Lions Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty Images
Despite labouring at times, Wales equalled their best autumn record by November’s end with victories over Argentina, Japan and South Africa. With that in mind, the negativity surrounding Wales might be overstated. But the humiliating defeat to Australia and the manner of those wins leaves many worried that this could be a Six Nations campaign to forget.
Coach: Rob Howley
In the absence of Warren Gatland, Howley has again stepped into the role of interim head coach. His back line lacked imagination, and didn’t prove much of a threat against what was lesser opposition in the autumn. His decision to go with Gatland on the Lions tour rather than take Wales on a summer tour will be forgiven should he provide the unexpected and put the spark back into a side that had it in abundance in previous years.
Captain: Alun Wyn Jones
The new Welsh captain gave an indication of what will be expected of his fellow internationals under his captaincy when stating that he wanted to grow leaders, adding that “followers are for twitter”. There will be pressure on Jones to help get the best out of players who despite results, under-performed last year.
Key-man: Dan Biggar
One forgets it was an injury to Rhys Priestland that first gave Biggar his big opportunity at international level. But the rest is history. He hasn’t looked back. But as with Wales, Biggar, who once set the Welsh back line firing, has lost some of his guile. His kicking is still at its best, but if he can return to form of previous years, Wales could be unlikely contenders for the Six Nations crown.
After they equalled their record in the November series, Wales should have some degree of optimism. If the saying that a measure of a good team is winning despite playing poorly, then Wales could be dark horses for the tournament. They have won three or more games in every campaign since they won just two games in 2010. As they showed in last year’s fightback against England, it just depends which team decides to turn up on the day.
Forwards: Scott Andrews (Cardiff Blues), Nicky Smith (Ospreys), Rob Evans (Scarlets), Rhodri Jones (Ospreys), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Kristian Dacey (Cardiff Blues), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Rory Thornton (Ospreys), Luke Charteris (Bath Rugby), Cory Hill (Newport Gwent Dragons), James King (Ospreys), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Olly Cracknell (Ospreys), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester Rugby), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues), Thomas Young (Wasps).
Backs: Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Rhys Webb (Ospreys), Aled Davies (Scarlets), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Sam Davies (Ospreys), Owen Williams (Leicester Tigers), Jamie Roberts (Harlequins), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Ashton Hewitt (Newport Gwent Dragons), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Steffan Evans (Scarlets), George North (Northampton Saints), Liam Williams (Scarlets), Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon).
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Six Nations 2017: The definitive guide
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